Thailand’s ruling military junta is further tightening its grip on the public discourse by heightening its censorship measures, going as far as reportedly implementing widespread surveillance of Thai Internet users. The new measure seeks to crush criticism at the military government and to crack down on anything that is deemed insulting to the royal institution – also known as lèse majesté.
When the Thai military declared martial law two days before it launched the coup of May 22, 2014, one of the main targets was the complete control of the broadcast media, which resulted in the presence of soldiers at all major television channels and the shutdown of thousands of unlicensed community radio stations and over a dozen politically partisan satellite TV channels, primarily those belonging to the warring street protest groups.
Nearly five months later, most of these satellite TV channels (with one notable exception) are back on the air but have been renamed and had to considerably tone down their political leanings before they were allowed to broadcast again. The TV hosts who were last year’s heavy-hitting political TV commentators are now hosting entertainment programs or, if they’re lucky, return to a talk show format, but only in the name of national “reform” and “reconciliation”.
But the military junta, also formally known as the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO), still has a firm grip on the media, as it has set up specific monitor watchdogs for different media platforms (and also specifically for foreign news outlets) to screen out critical content against the NCPO. Furthermore, it has practically issued a gag order to the Thai media – only then to reiterate that while criticism against the military junta is allowed, it should only be done “in good faith”.
The censorship measures and the monitoring efforts also extend online. Unlike during the last military coup in 2006, the emergence of social media networks makes it a daunting uphill battle for the junta to control the narrative. Nevertheless, the authorities have always been eager to have more control to filter and censor online content and have blatantly resorted to phishing for user information, and even considered launching its own national social network. And there was this:
In late May, a brief block of the social network Facebook sparked uproar online, while statements by the Ministry for Information and Telecommunication Technology (MICT) and the NCPO over whether or not the Facebook-block was ordered or it was an “technical glitch” contradicted each other. It emerged later through a the foreign parent company of a Thai telco company that there actually was an order to block Facebook, for which it got scolded by the Thai authorities.
“Thailand’s junta sets up media watchdogs to monitor anti-coup dissent“, Siam Voices/Asian Correspondent, June 26, 2014
The junta also reactivated its “Cyber Scout”-initiative, recruiting school children and students to monitor online content for dissidents, and announced plans for internet cafes to install cameras so that parents can remotely monitor what their kids are doing.
The towering motive of the junta’s online monitoring efforts has been recently laid out by outgoing army chief, junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha:
Gen. Prayuth outlined a strategy to “defend” the monarchy in a speech (…) [its] transcript describes the monarchy as an important element of Thai-style democracy and an institution that the Royal Thai Government is obliged to uphold “with loyalty and defense of His Majestic Authority.”
“We will use legal measures, social-psychological measures, and telecommunications and information technology to deal with those who are not mindful of their words, are arrogant at heart, or harbour ill intentions to undermine the important Institution of the nation,” the speech reads.
Under Section 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Codes, insulting the royal family is a criminal offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The law, known as lese majeste, has been harshly enforced since the military staged a coup against the elected government on 22 May. (…)
“Prayuth Vows Tougher Crackdown On Anti-Monarchists“, Khaosod English, September 11, 2014
And in order to achieve this, the junta reportedly doubled down its online monitoring earlier this week:
Thai authorities reportedly planned to implement a surveillance device starting from 15 September to sniff out Thai Internet users, specifically targeting those producing and reading lèse majesté content, a report says. Although the report is yet to be confirmed, it has created greater climate of fear among media.
Prachatai has received unconfirmed reports from two different sources. One said the device targets keywords related to lèse majesté and that it is relatively powerful and could access all kinds of communication traffic on the internet. Another source said it could even monitor communications using secured protocols.
After learning about this, a national level Thai-language newspaper editorial team has reluctantly resorted to a policy of greater self-censorship. Its editor warned editorial staff not to browse any lèse majesté website at work and think twice before reporting any story related to lèse majesté.
“Thai authorities reportedly to conduct mass surveillance of Thai internet users, targeting lèse majesté“, Prachatai English, September 10, 2014
On Wednesday, it was reported that amidst severe internet slowdowns across Southeast Asia due to a damaged undersea connection cable, coinciding with the possibility that extra internet filtering in Thailand has been activated.
There is no doubt that Thailand’s military junta is determined to go forward with its own, very exclusive way of governing and tightly controlling the narrative through widespread media censorship and massive online surveillance. By invoking the need to “protect the monarchy”, the military has a convenient weapon to act against dissidents in real life and in the virtual domain as well, no matter where they are.
According to the legal watchdog NGO iLaw, over 270 people have been detained by the junta between May 22 and September 5. Eighty-six of them are facing trial, most of them before a military court. Fifteen of those are cases concerning lèse majesté.
About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut blogs extensively about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and works as an international freelance broadcast journalist. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.